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Qualifying for the Olympics is hard. So is keeping it a secret.

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: February 10, 2018
  • Published February 9, 2018

Rosie Frankowski, 26, was a surprise addition to the U.S. cross-country ski team for the Olympics. (Marc Lester / ADN)

For a few days last month, Rosie Frankowski had to keep an Olympic-size secret.

Frankowski, a cross-country skier who lives and trains in Anchorage, was driving through Vermont in the back seat of a van when she got a call from a number she didn't recognize. She let it go to voicemail.

At a stop to pick up a teammate, she listened. It was Chris Grover, head coach of the U.S. cross-country ski team.

"The first thing he says is, 'We're going to name you to the Olympic team,'" Frankowski recalled this week in a phone interview from South Korea. Then, Grover added: "You can't tell people till the press release comes out in a couple days."

Thus began a very awkward week for Frankowski. She told her boyfriend and parents, but she couldn't tell the teammates with whom she was traveling and training: Some were waiting for similar calls from Grover and never got them.

"You're kind of like, 'Is this even true?'" she said. "To not tell people makes it feel almost unreal. You're like, 'What if they change their mind?' "

While the opening ceremonies for the games were held Friday, for a few Alaska cross-country skiers, this year's Olympic drama began weeks before the cauldron was lit.

Medal contenders like Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen were assured of their places on the Olympic team long ago.

But some, like Frankowski, only earned their spots after a January series of races at Kincaid Park — and after an excruciating wait as coaches weighed their options.

For others, that wait ended in disappointment.

Erik Flora talks with one of his athletes at Hatcher Pass in October. (Marc Lester / ADN)

"For someone that makes the team, of course it's the the greatest thing in the world, and we're really happy and they're excited. For the ones that barely miss, it's devastating," said Erik Flora, head coach of the Alaska Pacific University cross-country ski team and a former Olympic hopeful himself.

Flora had athletes on both sides of that divide this year. Frankowski, 26, was a surprise addition to the Olympic squad; she said her main goal for the season, instead of qualifying for South Korea, was ranking high enough to avoid paying the $40 fee to enter races in the United States.

Then there was Eric Packer.

Packer, 27, has dreamed of going to the Olympics since he started racing professionally — and even before that, when he would watch Alaska Olympic skiers like Randall and James Southam.

At the start of his training season last May, Packer wrote down two races as his main goals. The first was 15 kilometers in the classical cross-country skiing technique, in West Yellowstone, Montana, in December.

One kilometer from the finish, Packer was still with the lead pack. But then he crashed, breaking one of his poles and ending up seventh.

The other race was one of the national championships competitions at Kincaid Park last month. It was 30 kilometers, also in the classical technique.

After 80 minutes of racing, Packer came into the final turn in a pack with a half-dozen other men. He ended up finishing second by less than a second.

Eric Packer, right, finished second to Tyler Kornfield in the 30-kilometer classical race at the U.S. Cross Country Skiing Championships at Kincaid Park last month. (Bill Roth / ADN)

As soon as the race was over, someone walked up and congratulated Packer, telling him that he'd probably qualified for the Olympic team.

Even so, Packer faced nearly three weeks of waiting before the team was announced. He spent much of that time training at Kincaid Park for the event he'd be most likely to race in South Korea: the 50-kilometer classic race, which is cross-country skiing's equivalent to a marathon.

Packer, in a phone interview, said he'd prepared for a tough year of training and competition — less so for the "awful" emotional suspense of those three weeks.

"The waiting was the part that I wasn't prepared for — knowing that sometimes you can do everything that you can and some of it will be out of your hands," he said.

When coaches released the list of Olympic team members Jan. 26, it had nine men. By Packer's calculations, he was the "first guy out," he wrote in an Instagram post that day.

Eric Packer describes his disappointment in not making the 2018 U.S. Olympic Ski Team. (Instagram post provided by Eric Packer)

The difference, he said, was the eight-tenths of a second that left him in second place in the national championship race.

Instead of going to South Korea, Packer will race the American Birkebeiner marathon in Wisconsin and then head to competitions in Europe. He's been disappointed and frustrated, he said, but he added that he's been embracing that disappointment.

"Missing the Olympics by an inch has been my biggest fear for a long time. And having it actually happen — I woke up the next day, I was still alive, still breathing. And you know, there's something liberating to that," Packer said. "It hasn't changed who I am, and I still love skiing."

Frankowski, meanwhile, has been contending with sports' version of survivor's guilt: She was named to the Olympic squad over some of her own teammates who made South Korea their goal for years.

Frankowski didn't even start cross-country skiing until high school. She also works two jobs outside of ski racing, as an adjunct professor at Alaska Pacific University and a program manager at the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.

"I didn't even have hope, which is what made it so shocking when I got the call," she said. "I think that's the hardest thing I've struggled with since being named to the team and having to go public: to feel like I deserved this spot. Because I know there are so many skiers that in another day or in another qualifying period would have been in my position instead of me."

Frankowski likely won't even get to race in South Korea — the U.S. women's team is so stacked that many starting slots will be filled by medal hopefuls.

Frankowski said she sees her role as delivering "fresh energy" to the other skiers who have been racing in Europe, away from their homes and families for months. She brought American gum for one of her teammates, Sadie Bjornsen.

"The least stress I can be to anyone, and to remind them that they do this because it's fun and because it's an amazing sport — I think that that is a big role and how I'm going to try and do it," Frankowski said.

The whole experience is still nerve-wracking, exciting and overwhelming, she added.

"You just go through these three emotions in succession every time you think about it," she said.

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